Love And War
Copyright 2004 by Shivaji K. Moitra
In the picturesque valley of rolling gardens and silvery forests of Pines, Cedars and Chinars nestled amidst the lofty, snowy peaks of the Pirpanjal Range of the mighty Himalayas and known to the world as Kashmir, the small and sparsely populated hamlets scattered across the rugged terrain can only be reached on foot or on mules. And for the quaint denizens of those villages life has not changed much in half a century. For them life is neither a race against time nor a race for wealth and fame, rather it is a beautiful opportunity gifted by God to behold the grandeur of nature and to relish the cycle of seasons which allow them to farm and raise children. Their only link with the modern world is still their local Postman. And for the inhabitants of the 40 odd villages scattered over a radius of thirty miles around the district town of Anantnag, Mansa Ram was their Postman, friend, medicine-man and mentor. They treated him with the courtesy and respect befitting a honoured guest and adored him like a senior member of the family. Besides reading and writing letters for them he was often requested to settle a family dispute or offer his counsel on matters of importance. He was not more than forty but the rigors of walking thirty miles a day, six days a week gave him an older appearance. He was tall and thin but all muscle and he wore a thick moustache on his bony face. Like the hill people of North India he was fair and his features were sharp. Every morning he collected his mail from the sub-Post Office of Awantipura and set out on his long trek across coniferous forests and racing rivers to distribute them to their addresses in some 15 or 20 villages. It was a hazardous journey because Muslim terrorists fighting the Indian government for decades with the aim of establishing an independent Islamic State of Kashmir lurked everywhere, in the woods, in the caves and often in the remote villages. They singled out the minority Hindu homes with alarming regularity and wiped out entire families with AK 47s after tricking the inmates into unlocking their doors. And Mansa Ram too was a Hindu who was doubly vulnerable to their attacks since he had to traverse long distances on foot across jungles and desolate paths. But he shrugged off his fear. “After all who would like to harm a Postman?” he asked himself. He enjoyed his job which took him across stunningly beautiful landscapes and gave him the opportunity to meet so many people.
Among the many eager or anxious expecting him at the nondescript village called Hargam was a pretty young Muslim girl by the name of Shania. Getting into the middle of her teens she had just fallen in love with a lad called Pervez from the neighbouring village. They had met at a relative’s wedding and had exchanged their tender hearts after a brief courtship. But Shania could barely read and write. So whenever Mansa Ram came to their village she approached him shyly to write a beautiful letter to her boyfriend. And Mansa Ram always enjoyed the confidence reposed in him and loved to write for her though he feigned to busy and always short of time. Then he secretly delivered the love-letters to the boy. Festivals and village fairs offered the young lovers the opportunity to renew their pledge of eternal love from time to time. Six months later the boy passed school and had to leave his home to go to college at the district town. So he left the address of his hostel with Mansa Ram. Mansa Ram therefore wrote letters for Shania but now instead of couriering them he dropped those in the letter-box. And he brought the replies to the girl regularly and read them to her sitting under some isolated Chinar tree. Then after a year her letters suddenly stopped being answered. Shania became very worried. She wrote more letters. But not one brought a reply. She wondered if her dear Pervez had jilted her for some smart, educated lady of the town. Desperate to find out the truth she implored Mansa Ram to go to the boy’s house. A week later Mansa Ram returned with disturbing news for Shania. The boy’s distraught father told him that Pervez had just vanished from his hostel room. His friends suspected that he had dropped out of college to join one of the terrorist organizations operating in the valley and fighting the Indian Army with the aim of establishing an independent Muslim country. However, his father thought that he might have been picked up by the Indian Army for questioning, as it often happened after any attack on the forces in the vicinity. But before long Pervez’s friends’ suspicions were proved right when he received a letter from his son revealing that he had indeed left college to join the Jihad. He added that he was somewhere in the Pakistan-occupied territory of Kashmir and undergoing guerrilla training.
Mansa Ram told Shania everything and urged her to forget the misguided youth who had become a traitor by taking up arms against his motherland which had fed and nourished him and had given him freedom and education. Tears streamed down Shania’s deer-like eyes as she wept silently. “Uncle, how can I forget my first love so easily?” she muttered. Mansa Ram had no answer for the poor love struck creature. He could feel her pain. He himself had fallen in and out of love a couple of times.
For months there was no information about Pervez. The shock of losing the person of her heart transformed Shania. She became wan and reticent. Mansa Ram on his errands to the village always found her sitting pensively under her favourite walnut tree overlooking the Jhelum looking vaguely at her cows and sheep that grazed around. Nevertheless, she sprang to her feet every time she met Mansa Ram and ran up to him expectantly for some good news. But when Mansa Ram shook his head drily she turned back quietly, her head hung down in disappointment.
Then one night when it was bitterly cold outside and the snow fell steadily Mansa Ram finished his meager dinner early and slipped under a pile of quilts. A little after midnight he was rudely awakened by repeated knocks on his door. He turned pale with fear. Fearing the worst he held his breath and waited until he heard a familiar voice. “Uncle, uncle, I am Pervez. Sorry to wake you up at this unearthly hour.” He was dressed heavily in a long overcoat and a fur cap and he exhaled vapour like a tired horse. Mansa Ram shuddered. He could only imagine what lurked beneath his thick coat as Pervez fished out a letter from his breast-pocket and thrust it into his hand. “Give it to dear Shania. I’ll come back in a few days for her reply. Until then please keep her letters with you,” he whispered. Mansa Ram didn’t have the courage to prolong the conversation by asking him anything. But for the sake of the poor girl he croaked, “What are you doing?” “Uncle, I will tell you everything another day. But I must leave now,” he muttered after a brooding silence.
When Mansa Ram went to the girl’s village again he noticed her sitting under the same walnut tree. To give her a little surprise he tiptoed to her from behind and dropped the letter on her lap. Shania jumped up in joy. She tore open the letter and breezed through it. Then, she turned to Mansa Ram, smiled and said, “Look, I told you he can never forget me.” But her happiness waned when Mansa Ram related the circumstances in which Pervez appeared at night.
Nevertheless, all through the winter and the following spring he kept carrying the love-letters to and fro. Once or twice a month Pervez appeared at his house, always in the middle of the night. Then, one chirpy summer afternoon some strangers appeared at Mansa Ram’s door. It was a Sunday and he was home. They introduced themselves as policemen from the local Thana. But they were not in uniform. They said that they had information that a dreaded terrorist belonging to the notorious Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen outfit often visited him. “Next time he comes don’t forget to inform us; we must get him. Otherwise, we shall arrest you for treason. You understand what that means,” the officer barked. Mansa Ram feigned ignorance and stammered, “Sir, many people come to me from the villages to get their letters written and documents read out.” “No, he’s a young chap; perhaps you know his girl. The fellow has a hand in the recent massacre of Hindu pilgrims bound for Amarnath and he is also involved in a couple of ambushes upon the Army convoy,” the officer interrupted sternly, looking straight into his eyes. “Oh my God!” Mansa Ram exclaimed, stressing his innocence. They gave him a walkie-talkie, demonstrated its use and left.
Mansa Ram could sleep properly for several days. He stared frightfully at the wireless set lying beside his pillow. Ten days later there was the familiar knock on his door again. He threw away the quilt and sat up. He looked at the wall clock; it was 2 in the night. He clutched the transmitter with his trembling hands and pressed down the switch and whispered, “He’s come.” Then he hid the contraption in his kitchen and opened the door. He extended the pot of glowing charcoal towards Pervez and told him to warm up until he returned with some steaming tea. He had instructions to delay the lad’s departure. Over tea, they talked about nothing in particular but about the fine weather and their village folk and even about the plight of the common people under the shadow of continuous insurgency. “There can be no peace until India leaves Kashmir,” Pervez reiterated. “But why? India is a secular democracy,” Mansa Ram reasoned. Pervez failed to come up with a convincing reply. “Muslims don’t like democracy; they don’t want to be ruled by Hindus,” he retorted after a pause. Mansa Ram knew the futility of getting into an argument. He knew that the boy’s impressionable mind has been brain-washed by his Pakistani masters. He had tried to make the boy see reason a number of times before but in vain. And now there was no point in getting into an altercation in the final moments of his life. So he let Pervez do most of the talking. In the end Pervez thanked him and vanished into the darkness.
Barely had Mansa Ram bolted the doors when he heard the unmistakable staccato of shots outside. Then the muffled conversation of some people came to his ears. After that there was silence again. “That’s the end,” he muttered quietly. The whole night he kept pondering over his action. Did he commit a great sin by betraying the trust reposed in him by Pervez? Or had he acted according to his Dharma by helping to eliminate a murderer of innocent people and an enemy of his nation and religion? He tried to remember the teachings of his faith. But he could not come to any satisfactory conclusion. So he struggled to vindicate his action by ruminating over the famous words of Lord Krishna in the Bhagwat Gita. In the battle field of Kurukshetra Lord Krishna---the Charioteer had said to a reluctant Arjuna that taking up arms against the enemy was the biggest dharma. And here, he had merely helped to bring the enemy to justice. Beads of sweat collected on his forehead as he contemplated how to face the girl again. No way he could divulge the devastating news to her. It might drive her to end her life. So he decided to tell Shania nothing.
On his next visit to the village he therefore gave Shania what was Pervez’s last billet-doux and unlike other times quickly took her leave on the pretext of being busy just after promising to take her replies during his visit the following month. On his long trek back he kept thinking about the unfortunate girl and wondered what future awaited her. Would the pretty, guileless village girl pine away from a love that would never be requited? Or would she get married and forget all about it? To give his mind a respite from the sense of guilt and the gloomy thoughts that possessed his mind as a consequence and haunted him taking advantage of his solitary journey, he went along whistling and crooning popular film songs and occasionally chased the monkeys and other small animals that crossed his path. When he met her again he took her letter but told her that Pervez had not turned up meantime. At every following visit when he met Shania, he repeated the same jarring note. But Shania refused to believe that the flame of her heart, the passion of her life would return never again. A strange disquiet though possessed her which erased the smile from her lips. She became morose, somewhat absent-minded and unconcerned about herself and the world around her. Nevertheless, she never failed to deliver a fresh letter to Mansa Ram every time she met him hoping that Pervez would visit in the following days. It was a crazy act. But Mansa Ram was aware that teenage love was a queer thing. It often assumed the form of a dangerous malady that assailed the body and clouded the mind sending the victim into a state of delirium. So he brought home the letters and put them into the drawer of his only table.
With every passing week Mansa Ram noticed that the girl had grown more and more frail and unkempt. Meanwhile, Spring had given way to Summer.
One day in the end of Summer Mansa Ram on his visit to Hargam was alarmed by the absence of Shania when he passed by the spot before her house where she always used to wait for him. Soon the villagers brought the painful news to him. They said that they had found her the day before on the rocky bank of the Jhelum lying awkwardly entangled in a coppice and grievously injured. She was barely alive when they had carried her home. She had mysteriously fallen 25 metres to the bottom of the gorge cut by the gushing river. The edge of the gorge was roughly 50 feet away from the walnut tree under which she regularly sat and kept an eye on her grazing buffaloes and sheep. Some of her neighbours pointed a finger at one of her particularly bad tempered buffalo which had often charged at people. They suspected it had suddenly pushed her over the precipice from behind. While a few others guessed she had been attacked by a wandering brown bear recently seen by the villagers. Mansa Ram was furious. Only he knew the truth. He dashed to the girl’s house. He found her lying on a cot wrapped in bandages from head to toe. She was thin as a mummy and her once beautiful big eyes had sunk deep within their sockets and there were cuts and bruises all over her face. She gave him a vacant stare but could not speak. Mansa Ram fished out from his bag some tablets of a sulpher drug and pain-killers and assured her a quick recovery. Shania’s lips briefly trembled as she tried to mumble something. Mansa Ram closed his moist eyes and nodded. Behind his mind he could see the foreshadow of death.
It was a weird coincidence that Shania died on the
very morning Mansa Ram arrived to the village on his next errand. He
cried before her coffin like a child. When the coffin was lowered
into the earth the villagers paid their last tributes with wild
flowers and walnuts while Mansa Ram gently placed the bundle of
letters on it. Then, as the earth was being shoveled over her coffin
amid the wails and laments of her relatives and others he prayed
silently that her soul might unite with the soul of her beloved
Pervez in heaven. Thus, having delivered those letters to what he
believed was the ultimate address he heaved a long sad sigh of
relief. At last he considered himself a free man again.
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